The Journal of Developing Areas 39.2 (2006) 29-39
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Economic Incentives for Fostering Jamaican Children
The practice of informal child fostering is pervasive in the Caribbean and other parts of the developing world. While the reasons for fostering out a child are clear it is not clear why an individual would accept the task of caring for someone else's child. In this paper we argue that acceptance of a foster child goes beyond altruism and indeed has some strong economic motives. Using multivariate regression analysis and data from Jamaica we show the demand for foster children comes primarily from rural household, farm households and elderly householders. This pattern is consistent with the use of foster children to adjust the household's labor supply to the desired level. The biological parents of foster children also appear to be important financial contributors to the foster household.
foster children, child labor, child rearing, kinship ties, household labor supply
Child shifting, the practice of placing one's children with either unrelated or related adults in informal fostered care is ubiquitous in Caribbean societies and other developing areas of the world. For example, of the 2453 children under age 15 in the 1996 Jamaica Survey of Living Conditions (JSLC), 357, or 14.6 percent were not living in the same household as their biological parents. The proportion of children being fostered ranges from a low of three percent of children who are one year old or younger to a high of 23 percent of children who are twelve years old. [End Page 29]
Caribbean child shifting has not been extensively studied, and is usually treated under the subject of family structure,1 the domain of sociology and demography. Researchers in those fields have been concerned with the characteristics of women who shift children (Isaac and Conrad, 1982; Russell-Brown, Norville and Griffith, 1997), the cultural arrangements that make shifting possible (Gordon, 1987), and the extent to which shifting children severs kinship ties with biological parents (Lange and Rodman, 1992). This line of research concludes that fostering is a strategy for the survival of young (teenage) mothers, a way to allow mothers to care for their children while they seek employment in other locations, and a way to insure the child's development (Lange and Rodman, 1992; Barrow, 1986). Ainsworth (1996) notes that the family structure research emphasizes the demographic dimensions and ignores the economics of the fostering decision. Indeed, Gordon (1987) denies a role for economic considerations entirely. In discussing fostering in Antigua she writes, "Although other studies document the labor contributions of children…such would not appear to be a strong or primary motivation among West Indians" (p 431).
Our purpose is not to deny the very important role of family structure in determining foster arrangements, but rather to extent the understanding of fostering to include economic considerations of the fostering household. We focus on the possible economic motivations for accepting foster children. These include the receipt of money and other contributions from the child's parents, the demand for additional labor in the household and in commercial production and the demand for companionship by elderly and disabled householders. For example, Castle (1995) and Isiugo-Abanihe, (1985) in studies of West Africa have identified the use of fostering children as a means of obtaining labor for home production. Studying fostering arrangements in Cote d' Ivoire Ainsworth (1996) finds the acceptance of foster children is overtly motivated by the labor provided by the child in household and commercial production. In support of this conclusion, there is a large gap between foster boys and own boys in housework participation and jobs outside the home. Cain (1977) discusses what might be termed "wage fostering." Foster boys, as young as eight years of age, are used to care for cattle receiving room and board, clothes and care in case of illness as compensation. Thomas-Hope (1992) refers to child shifting as "an unofficial, but effective...